In the May Chronicle I described how Rabbi Elise Goldstein, searching for a sacred way of marking the beginning of her menstruation, had reclaimed for herself the shelo asani ishah blessing (Blessed is the One Who has not made me a woman), by rephrasing it in the positive – Baruch She’asani Ishah (Blessed is the One Who has made me a woman).
In a response written to the newspaper (printed here on page__), David Abeldas is concerned that this might be a brachah levatalah, an unnecessary or erroneous blessing, because “no rabbi today would have the audacity to invent new blessings as this would be a serious breach of halacha contravening the Torah commandments…” I wonder whether he feels that every time he, or someone in his household, recites the blessing for candles on Friday night, that they are making an erroneous blessing?
You see, despite the wording we all say – v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat, and Who has commanded us to light the light of Shabbat – you will not find any command to light candles in the Torah. You will not find it anywhere in the Hebrew Bible. You will not find the blessing in the Mishnah, Talmud, or in the earliest siddurim of Saadia Gaon and Seder Rav Amram (9th Century). In fact, the first time you will see it appearing in a siddur is in the Machzor Vitry, a compendium of prayers and laws put together by the students of Rashi, the famous 11th Century French commentator (which incidentally also describes how women of the time were putting on tallit and tefillin with blessings).
The reason for that is that until the 11th Century, nobody said a blessing for lighting candles. And when Rashi decided that it was a mitzvah to light candles (see his commentary to the Talmud Shabbat 25b), there was no precedent for the wording of such a blessing. But there was a blessing already being said over Chanukah candles that had the merit of being mentioned in the Talmud, v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah. All that Rashi (or probably his grandson, Rabbeinu Tam) did was to take out the word Chanukah and replace it with Shabbat. How do we know that Rashi’s daughters said this blessing? Because we have a responsum, written by Rashi’s granddaughter, Hannah, describing the ritual performed in their home, including that blessing that we all say today. A blessing that in Jewish terms is fairly new, only 900 years old.
You see, Judaism has always evolved to meet the challenges of new times, and that does not mean that it is in any way “deficient”. In fact, the opposite. A religion that is robust and confident enough to continuously struggle is one that is able to grow.
With a few outstanding exceptions, the Sages were men, and legislated from their personal experience. They thanked God for the miracle of their bodies in the same way that Rabbi Goldstein thanks God for hers, and they did not write a blessing for menstruation since they did not menstruate. Where were the brachot for entering menopause, for weaning a child? Where could the rituals possibly have been written then for taking fertility treatment or having a mammogram? Until the 20th Century there was no ritual for a bat mitzvah, until an American Reconstructionist rabbi’s daughter performed the first one. (In fact, the bar mitzvah celebration that we know today only came into being in the Middle Ages.) We sadly need rituals for healing from abuse and incest or after a course of chemotherapy. And thank God, in today’s world we need to write appropriate blessings for a lesbian couple standing under the chuppah.
Yes, libraries have been written to explain away the apparent sexism and misogyny inherent in Judaism, and if they speak to you, I will not object. But libraries are also being written to fill gaps that have stood for a thousand years or some that have only opened today. A wonderful resource available to all Jews is www.ritualwell.org where men and women are writing new Jewish rituals for today, rooted in tradition. I encourage all to browse around and see what innovations are possible when we feel confident enough to use the rich legacy of our tradition creatively.
A blessing is a spiritual flashlight, a Jewish tool of awareness and insight that can bring holiness to the most mundane of moments, and can elevate the great transitions of our life’s journey to the sacred. To use them effectively we need to take ownership, know how to use them and where they are missing, to use the wisdom of our sages to help us renew the old and sanctify the new.